faculty & experts
22 October 2020

Solidarity and Self-Interest: The UN at 75

It was supposed to be a big celebration. But like at many birthday parties in 2020, the guests could not come. The annual gathering of the UN General Assembly in New York was eerily bereft of the leaders that, in a normal year, use the opportunity to make grand statements, in person, to the proverbial Parliament of Man. In September 2020, instead of the habitual grandstanding, leaders sent in pre-recorded messages.  Even the local boy – Donald J. Trump – failed to show up.

There was one exception. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutierrez, spoke to the mostly empty chairs of the GA. His message was emphatic. COVID-19 was a wake-up call. “In an interconnected world,” Gutierrez emphasised, “it is high time to recognise a simple truth: solidarity is self-interest. If we fail to grasp that fact, everyone loses.”
Many applaud this sentiment in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. An invisible common enemy that knows no borders and recognises no political systems should galvanise nations to work together. We should all pull together to slow down the spread of Covid-19. The fastest and safest way towards developing the ultimate defensive weapon – a vaccine – is by pooling together the formidable resources of scientists around the world.
It may seem like common sense but that is not how the world seems to work. We have seen a dizzying array of national responses, an ever-changing regime of border closures and lockdowns, and an ongoing battle between “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine multilateralism”. For a brief moment (in March and April of 2020) everyone seemed hungry for scientific expertise. But as time progressed, many people grew tired of the restrictions placed upon their individual freedoms. Misinformation – so easily spread in the era of social media – spiraled out of control. The work of health services became ever more difficult.
Most of all, the pandemic was politicised at local, national, regional and international levels. This was most evident in the case of the United States. Already in May, the Trump administration announced that the United States was leaving the World Health Organization (WHO), charging that the Geneva-based organisation was China’s lackey. Wearing the facemask became a political symbol amidst the ongoing presidential election. In the meantime, the second wave of coronavirus arrived in Europe, effectively shutting down cities like Madrid and Paris.
Coronavirus has effectively highlighted the major dilemma of the United Nations. On the one hand, it is clear that international solidarity is more necessary today than at any time in the past 75 years. No country, however powerful or isolated, can expect to defeat this pandemic on its own. On the other hand, in a world of nation states, politicians almost always act in ways that they perceive best serve the self-interest of their own constituencies.
Ultimately, it is folly to think that the role of the UN is any less important in 2020 than before. Without international cooperation, the virus will be with us longer. The pandemic’s long-term socio-economic side effects will be more severe. The UN and its programmes cannot solve the world’s problems but they remain an indispensable tool that nation states cast aside at their own peril. For international solidarity is, indeed, in the self-interest of all countries.